Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 25, 2022
The Maldivian government has taken steps to curb the ‘India Out’ campaign, showcasing the strategic importance of India
Maldives: Taking on ‘India Out’ campaign in word and deed

A water-cannon salute for an Air India flight to celebrate the oddly-placed 46th anniversary of air travel between the two nations, an MoU between state-owed Maldives National University (MNU) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and an agreement between Government-owned Ocean Connect Maldives and private sector Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) to establish the ‘Maldives IAZ Subsea Cable System’—and suddenly, the leadership of President Ibrahim Solih has begun taking on the Opposition’s ‘India Out’ campaign, in word and deed. Topping it all, Indian Defence Secretary Dr Ajay Kumar visited Malé for taking bilateral programmes forward and government ministers told Parliament’s Security Committee, how the Opposition’s programme was motivated and hurt Maldivian interests more.

"Our food security depends a lot on imports from India", the minister said and listed rice, flour, sugar, chicken, eggs, potatoes, onions, and lentils as amongst the basic foodstuffs consumed by Maldivians in substantial quantities and supplied by India.

Appearing before what is also known as the ‘241 Security Committee’, after Speaker Mohammed Nasheed had caused what is tantamount to an all-round evaluation-cum-awareness programme, Economic Affairs Minister Fayyaz Ismail explained how the Opposition campaign, identified with the former President Abdulla Yameen, posed a ‘threat to the food security’ of the nation. "Our food security depends a lot on imports from India", the minister said and listed rice, flour, sugar, chicken, eggs, potatoes, onions, and lentils as amongst the basic foodstuffs consumed by Maldivians in substantial quantities and supplied by India. So were certain quantities of sand and gravel for construction work, which are in short supply the world over.

The minister had a point. As the street-opinion in Maldives goes, if south India’s Thoothukudi port, for instance, were to be shut down for a week, whatever the reason, Maldivians would have to go without food, life-saving medicines, construction material, and even stationery for their school-going children and offices. Minister Fayyaz explained that an extendable three-year iron-clad agreement guaranteed that supplies to Maldives were not affected by sudden changes in India’s policies, rendering his nation’s food situation precarious and unpredictable. “Many of these (aid) is gained by us lobbying. For instance, quotas for construction are no longer allowed out of India. But due to the close relationship, we are allowed to continue it,” he said further.

Thus, “even when they have stopped export of construction material, as part of bilateral relations, we have a quota of 100 tonnes for stone aggregates and also eight-lakh tonnes of river sand”. The minister told the Parliamentary panel that “these things are very important for our food security and economy as well”, pointing out how India was also a major source for tourism sector, the nation’s economic mainstay.

Minister Fayyaz explained that an extendable three-year iron-clad agreement guaranteed that supplies to Maldives were not affected by sudden changes in India’s policies, rendering his nation’s food situation precarious and unpredictable.

There was an exception that India could suspend the supplies if Maldives acted in ways unacceptable to India, Minister Fayyaz said. This happened to the ‘specially-privileged’ sand-gravel supplies for the nation under the predecessor Yameen administration—and that of the short-lived Waheed presidency earlier. The minister admitted that there may be other supplier-nations, but not in terms of quantities and quality, regularity and price-stability. He added that the ‘effects’ of the ‘India Out’ campaign was beginning to be felt, but not the ‘ill-effects’ as such, not as yet. 

Uncivilised, most dangerous

In her turn, Defence Minister Mariya Didi described the Opposition campaign as an ‘uncivilised….the most dangerous campaign" that has ‘disrupted internal stability’, posed a threat to national and regional security, and to foreign nationals resident in the Maldives, and Maldivians resident abroad. Home Minister Imran Abdulla recalled how India funded many infrastructure and development projects in the country, and how Indian doctors, nurses, teachers and other service sector employees felt threatened by the campaign, which alone needed to be ousted.

Before the parliamentary panel, Foreign Secretary Abdul Gafoor Mohamed stated that third-nation embassies too have been expressing concerns over the Opposition campaign. “Other countries that have embassies in Maldives have also raised concerns. They have also requested to heighten security at their embassies.” State Minister Ahmed Khaleel at the Foreign Ministry explained that with more diplomats residing in Maldives, such campaigns will affect other countries too. “India is biggest power in terms of economics, military, and politically in this region,” he said on the Opposition’s campaign, whose main focus is said to be ‘India Military Out’ but without clarity on the reason for it, as yet.

Desperate attempt

Responding to specific queries from panel members, Foreign Ministry officials asserted that none of the agreements that the Solih administration had signed with India were new, and they had been initiated by the predecessor Yameen administration. They clarified that foreign policy changed with every change of government and the incumbent had restored the hydrography survey agreement with India that was cancelled by the predecessor.

In a separate development, the Defence Ministry, taking its pro-active posturing further, declined to share details of the ‘Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) coast guard base development’ agreement with India, as sought by The Maldives Journal, a pro-Yameen web-outlet.  This, despite, Yameen reiterating in public rallies that UTF ‘is filled with danger, an Indian military base’, that the government did not have control over the island, and how the Parliament was not taken into confidence on the contents of the agreement.

Maldives’ top cop, Mohamed Hameed, Police Commissioner, hit the nail on the head, when he responded to a panel query how the presence of Indian military personnel posed ‘no threat’ to the nation’s security or internal security. He pointed out how countries help one another in geo-strategic security matters, with military personnel from different countries being involved, and added that Maldivian military personnel too are active in other countries.

The reality is that this shows there’s nothing President Yameen wouldn’t do to come to power. This is a false propaganda to create a rift between the Maldivian people and the Indian people.

However, it was left to Rozaina Adam, a senior parliamentarian from ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), to take on the Opposition PPM-PNC combine’s campaign, squarely. In a TV talk-show, she said it was a desperate attempt to create hate between the Maldivian people and the Solih government. She said that Yameen had taken many decisions during his administration which put Maldives at risk of losing its independence and land. “The reality is that this shows there’s nothing President Yameen wouldn’t do to come to power. This is a false propaganda to create a rift between the Maldivian people and the Indian people,” she said.

“The claims of loss of Maldives’ independence is just false,” MP Rozaina said. “That’s not military presence…We are not talking about armed Indian soldiers coming to take Maldives…We have seen military presence in other countries, the armed soldiers in the streets,” she said. Rozaina said the campaign was born out of jealousy because the government had continued to provide uninterrupted public services despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and pointed out how Yameen’s actions contradicted his observations as President.

Criminalising ‘India Out’

That the ruling MDP was balanced in its approach to ‘India Out’ campaign became clear when the party’s parliamentary group deferred Speaker Nasheed’s idea as the party chief to bring forward a new legislation to criminalise campaigns of the kind against friendly nations. Party MPs had initially cleared the idea of what the Opposition dubbed ‘India-Out law’ but in detailed discussions reportedly did not feel comfortable about penalising freedom of expression and right to protest, which are at the centre of the PPM-PNC combine. Even before the MDP got its act together, Yameen had stressed that passing a law will not stop ‘India Out’ campaign. Some Opposition leaders as also independent observers felt that a future non-MDP government could give retrospective effect to such a law, and haul up Speaker Nasheed to task, dubbing his continuing criticism of China as criticism of a ‘friendly nation’. This is so even as the recently-floated Maldives National Party (MNP) of retired army colonel, Mohamed Nazim, estranged Defence Minister from Yameen’s presidency, opposed the proposal of Nasheed, once President, as an ‘obstacle to the freedom of expression’.

From a purely Indian perspective, the deferment of MDP’s decision may go to dilute the Opposition social media claim that New Delhi was behind the ruling party’s initiative, so also the 241 committee proceedings, which would be presented to Parliament, for follow-up debate and decision, if it came to that. The fact that the MDP is divided on the ‘criminalisation’ concept and those concerns centre on domestic issues pertaining to democracy and freedom of expression should silence critics of India on this and also the larger issues of their ‘India Out’ campaign.

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